For many years I’ve been searching for my perfect camera – a single lens reflex (SLR) camera that feels as good as a Leica M. Yes, despite my aversion to gear-worship and marketing hyperbole, Leicas really are quite amazing. To hold and shoot a Leica M3 is to hold and shoot a purpose-built, precision-made object crafted of intricate metalwork designed with care and assembled by hand, and many serious camera-likers consider the Leica M3 to be the best 35mm film camera ever made. The problem, for me, is that Leica M cameras are rangefinder cameras and I don’t like using rangefinder cameras. I like SLR cameras.
But I deeply appreciate the things that Leica Ms are – solid, compact, with precision innards and a feel of undeniable quality bordering on luxury. To make matters worse, the Leica M cameras aren’t just pretty, well-made objects. They’re also superbly capable tools of photography. They work flawlessly, and the accompanying Leica lenses are among the finest performing optics ever made by human beings. This puts me in a tragic position. I wish I could enjoy using an M, but I can’t.
I know that the two preambling paragraphs above this one read like the histrionic hyperventilations so often spouted by other camera-liking writers and YouTubers who constantly scream about the Leica M being an extension of their eyes and how the Leica has changed their lives. But if you’ve visited this site over the past five years you’ll know that I’ve played devil’s advocate, critically examining Leica cameras in other opinion pieces on this site. But today’s article isn’t in competition with the other articles I’ve written which float the heresy that Leicas aren’t automatically the best. Each article informs the others. Yes, I want people to know that there are flaws in the Leica M. But I also recognize that there’s no finer 35mm film camera, all things considered, than the Leica M. It really is that good.
The important thing to note, before we go any further, is that when I refer to the “Leica M” in this article I’m referring specifically to the M3, M2, and the original M4. These are together the purest Leica Ms. They don’t have light meters and their core functionality is the same. The most important differences between these models are the frame lines and viewfinders. I’ve talked about all of this in my guide to buying a Leica M.
The quest to find an SLR that feels as good as a Leica M sounds like an easy task. Experienced photo geeks are likely reading this sentence while simultaneously picturing in their mind two or three of their favorite SLRs which they consider to be just as good or better than any Leica M. But personal experience tells me that I could successfully debate that they’ve not got the answer. I’ve even asked this very question, “What’s the SLR equivalent of the Leica M?” in a large, private group chat populated by twenty-or-so camera-culture talking heads who you’ve probably read or watched extensively. These people know their cameras. And there’s still no correct answer.
The Olympus OM-1? This camera was literally designed to be the SLR equivalent of the Leica M, and was even originally sold as the “M-1” until a complaint by Leica forced a name change. Chief designer Yoshihisa Maitani was himself a Leica user, and he wanted to develop the exact camera that I’m alluding to in this article. A compact, capable, simple, SLR to be as good as the Leica M. In many ways Olympus succeeded. The OM-1 is a fantastic camera – small, capable, innovative. But if you’ve ever advanced the film advance lever of an OM-1 and then immediately done the same with a Leica M3 you’ll know that there’s no comparison – the Olympus is a great camera, but nowhere near as smooth as the M.
The Nikon FM3a? It’s an amazing camera. Definitely more capable than the Leica M, with its impressive metering modes and its enormous and bright viewfinder. Its perfectly placed and perfectly sized controls are, well, perfect. The film advance is smooth and fluid, rolling on ball-bearings, and it’s a fairly compact machine for an SLR. It’s nearly the ideal manual focus SLR. But then again, it feels a little hollow. The top and bottom plates don’t have the heft of a Leica M. The mechanisms have just an almost imperceptible play that the Leicas just don’t exhibit. And Nikon’s lenses can be big honkers hanging off the face of the camera.
The Pentax LX? Basically the same as Nikon’s FM3a. A great SLR, weather-sealed, excellent metering, some mechanical modes. But it’s prone to mechanical failures in its mirror assembly, and it doesn’t work outside of limited speeds without batteries.
I’ve tried the lesser-known Pentax SL on the advice of Pentax’s former President, Ned Bunnell. Essentially a Pentax Spotmatic without the light meter, the Pentax SL surprised me in how close it came to being the M of SLRs. It’s small. It’s all metal. It’s simple, with a mechanical shutter and no light meter and basic specifications that mirror what Leica did with the Leica M3. And the Pentax SL is incredibly well-made. Solid, hefty bordering on heavy, and able to fit a suite of really excellent Super Takumar M42 lenses. But in the end there’s something lacking in the SL. Like many Japanese cameras, it’s just not as smooth and fluid as the M. Film advance feels a bit resistant, and the viewfinder, impressive in its day, is dim compared to later SLRs. Focusing isn’t excellent. Screwing a lens onto the camera feels like a compromise.
I thought I needed to go further into the past, to an era of old-world craftsmanship and a no expense spared production process. I tried Alpa, the 10d, to be precise. And this camera is indeed a jeweler’s dream. Made by a company who also produced mechanical watch components, the Alpa is built like a clock. But shooting one is a lot like shooting a clock. A grandfather clock. With a neck strap. The camera is enormous, heavy, cumbersome, and clumsy. Not the SLR equivalent of the svelte and perfectly-proportioned M. The search continued.
I’ve tried (and currently use almost exclusively) Leica SLRs. This seems like the obvious answer to a stupid question, and one you’ve probably already whispered to the text on your screen. “James, you moron. The Leica M of SLRs will naturally be a Leica SLR. You idiot.” But I’ve shot every single Leica SLR, and they’re nothing like the Leica M. The Leicaflex, SL, and SL2 are simply enormous. I love them, and they’re incredible cameras with beautiful lenses, but they’re just about the largest manual focus SLR you can buy. They’re not the M of SLRs.
Later Leica SLRs co-designed with Minolta come close. The R series cameras are small for SLRs, very well-made, and extremely capable. But the only fully mechanical Leica R series SLRs are the Leica R6 and the R6.2, and though these cameras are excellent, the way they shoot isn’t. The film advance lever is plastic and feels like it’ll break if we shoot after having a few too many milligrams of caffeine. The shutter release button is soft and spongey, and the lag between shutter press and shutter release can be frustrating. The internals have a few too many plastic components, and the take-up spool in one of my cameras simply snapped in half, which wouldn’t happen to the metal spool of an M.
For the record, my current everyday SLR is a new old stock Leica R5 I found in a secret stash of untouched Leica gear. I love it completely. But I also know that it could die an electronic death tomorrow and I’d be looking at a pricey repair. And it’s also got all of those little niggling problems attributed to the R6 in the previous paragraph. It’s just not perfect.
After years of searching, I’ve begun to think that there may not be an SLR as nice as a Leica M. I’ve started to think that the screaming, frothing hype-warriors wilding out over Leica Ms being the best cameras ever made may have a point. I can’t find an SLR that offers the same combination of compactness, capability, excellent quality lenses, and the most limiting factor of all, the extreme quality of build that the M offers to rangefinder shooters. It’s become maddening. I’ve even contemplated forcing myself to like rangefinder focusing and limited focal length choice, just to enjoy the feel of an M.
Of course, I could always just chill. I could stop being so finicky and critical. Realize that while the OM-1 may not have the smoothest film advance in the world it’s still an incredible camera. Realize that while the FM3a may not be as dense and fine as an M3, its metering modes and amazing Nikkor lenses more than make up for the nearly indiscernible difference in quality. Realize that a Canon Eos Elan 7e can do dozens of things an M can never do, make easier photos with hundreds of lenses, and cost a third the price, even if it feels wonky and dorky and excessively plasticized. Realize that cameras don’t really matter, only photos do. And I do that most of the time. Most of the time I just have fun with whatever I’m shooting, and I don’t even think about Leicas.
But you know what happens when I do that? Eventually and inevitably a Leica M will come through the shop and I’ll take a few moments to fiddle with it. And in a few moments I’m back on the hunt. Because Leica Ms just feel that good. If you’ve never handled an M you’ll be skeptical of this entire article. I would be. But they’re really that good. It’s very annoying.
One of our writers is taking a trip to Japan next month. During a recent online meeting he mentioned this, and that he’d love to bring a camera along for an experience article. He wanted an Olympus Pen F, another Maitani design, this one a half-frame SLR camera with interchangeable lenses. So I bought one for him, and when it arrived here at the office I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Incredibly small, smaller even than a Leica M, made of dense, solid metal, and actually possessing a refined design language that the tool-oriented SLRs I’ve listed above sometimes lack, the Pen F was a real eye-opener.
See, I’d sort of ignored the Pen SLR cameras. I’ve used a handful of Olympus Pen half frame cameras over the years, the ultra rare Pen W, the original Pen, the Pen EE series. They’re okay cameras. Kind of cheaply built. A little too simple. No advanced focusing methodology. Primitive meters on some. Nothing that got me too excited, to be honest. And I’d foolishly lumped the Pen SLR cameras into this same camp. But the Pen F that I was holding in my hands that day in the office, that was something else entirely.
After years of searching, the Pen F may be the Leica M of SLR cameras. It’s so impossibly small. So tight and well-built. Its mirror actuation is clockwork perfection. Its lenses are amazingly small, and by all accounts can create incredibly fine images. I never expected that. Raising the camera to my eye, uh-oh. That viewfinder is not the brightest… That half-frame image area may be limiting… That film advance action isn’t quite as smooth as an M, is it? Oh, dear. Oh, dear. I’ll wait for Josh’s review and maybe try the Pen F myself in a few months. We’ll see what it can do.
I know that there must be an SLR that feels as good as a Leica M. As pure, simple, capable, well-built, and beautiful, with amazing lenses. There must be. And I’ll admit that much of the motivation of writing this article springs from the hope that some wise reader will mention that perfect SLR camera in the comments, thus ending my fruitless and frustrating search. Until then, I’ll keep searching for the perfect SLR. Or maybe I should go out and try to be a better photographer? A novel thought for a different article.
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